James Tenney
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James Tenney (1934), who had studied electronic music at the University of Illinois (1959-61), was probably the first composer to craft an aesthetic for computer music. He began by exploring the techniques developed by the Darmstadt school, for example in the pioneering plunderphonic composition Collage #1 ("Blue Suede") (1961), basically a a tape manipulation collage of Elvis Presley's interpretation of Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes, and Viet Flakes (1966), another similar "concrete" collage. Most of these pieces employed Max Mathews's "digital synthesis" software, that he had learned during his tenure at the Bell Laboratories (1961-64). The exception was the revolutionary manifesto Noise Study (1961), a bubbling breeze of hisses that updated Edgar Varese to the age of John Cage.

Tenney realized that electronic and digital music almost forced the composer to accept noise as "music" and to abandon the idea of absolute control over a composition. While employing and developing compositional algorithms, he thus came to accept Cage's passion for randomness, although from a different angle: computer music can be "unpredictable" (rather than "random"). Furthermore, the composer of computer music could better achieve her or his artistic vision by focusing on "stochastic" quantities, the elements that define the overall structure (the "gestalt"), rather than trying to specify each single element of each single second of music. The treatise "Meta + Hodos: A Phenomenology of 20th-Century Musical Materials and an Approach to the Study of Form (1961) had already explained his theories, that mirrored similar experiments by Iannis Xenakis.

Dialogue (1963) has been described as a dialogue between pure noise and pure tones, but, more importantly, was the first application of Tenney's principle of musical "gestalt". Music for Player Piano (1964) was another one (also, its second half is the reverse of the first), and a computer program determined pitch, duration and density of sounds. Phases (1963), dedicated to Varese, expands on that concept, stretching the soundscape/wasteland to twelve minutes of spare, ghostly, discrete, inorganic sounds, a predecessor of Morton Subotnick's suites of a few years later. Ergodos II (1964), dedicated to John Cage, is an 18-minute tape that further enhances the method by using the "ergodic" paradigm (every part of the whole be statically equivalent to any other part). The result is an even less looser aggregate of sonic events that has lost any kind of dramatic development. It is, in many ways, similar to biological organisms that are not interested in developing but only in preserving their identity.
Tenney's mature phase began with the tape work Fabric for Che (1967), a virtually endless piece of electronic music that exudes anger and frustation, and peaked with For Ann (1969), a minimalist and mathematical piece of superimposed glissandi.

Selected Works 1961-1969 (Frog Peak, 1992 - New World, 2003) collects some of these pieces. Other relevant compositions of this period include Four Stochastic Studies and Stochastic String Quartet (1963).

Among Tenney's most ambitious compositions are the series begun with Postal Piece 1 (1965), and collected on Postal Pieces (New World, 2004), the series begun with Harmonium 1 (1975), the microtonal string quartet Koan (1984), the Three Pieces for Drum Quartet (1975), The Road to Ubud (1986) for prepared piano and gamelan ensemble, Rune for percussion quintet (1988), the series of chamber pieces begun with Spectrum I (1995), for violin, trumpet, bass clarinet, percussion, piano and contrabass.

Particularly challenging are his works for orchestra: In a Large Open Space (1994) for variable orchestra; In a Large Reverberant Space (1995) for variable orchestra; Diapason (1996), Scend for Scelsi (1996); Last Spring in Toronto (2000) for gamelan ensemble and orchestra; etc.

Several of his compositions were collected on The Solo Works for Percussion (Hat Hut, 1998) and Music for Violin and Piano (hat ART, 1999). Bridge & Flocking (hat ART, 1996) combines Bridge (1984) for two microtonal pianos and Flocking (1993) for two quarter-tone pianos. Relache's On Edge (Mode, 1992) contains Critical Band (1988) for ten sustained-tone instruments. The double-disc album Forms 1-4 (Hat Hut, 2002) contains compositions dedicated to four American composers: Edgar Varese, John Cage, Stefan Wolpe, Morton Feldman.

Later electroacoustic compositions (noise studies and collages) include Saxony (1978).

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(Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
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